FOLLOWING an insipid performance at home to Hebburn, North Shields gave a spirited performance in the long trek to the west coast.
However, a profligate Shields could not build on their early advantage and two Cumbrian goals ensured a pointless trip home for Anthony Woodhouse’s men.
Shields have been record breakers this season with a magnificent 25-match unbeaten league stretch on their travels going back to September 2010, but now even their away form has deserted them.
The Robins have still won twice recently in cup ties at Hebburn Town and Newcastle Benfield, but defeats at Washington, Morpeth and now Whitehaven, with points at stake, have dented and all but ruled out their promotion challenge.
Shields were sitting pretty at the turn of the year but the anticipated points surge from games in hand has not materialised with only a meagre nine achieved from the last 33.
Supporters all over can be fickle and those at North Shields are certainly not exceptional in that department, and it is appreciated there is disappointment that promotion aspirations have been put on hold for the present.
This from a squad that many consider to be the best in quality, on paper at least, in Shields’ recent history.
That said, players still need a ‘lift’ and not the tepid encouragement of late.
After all, a possible final top six placing added to a league cup run in which they have already ousted one first division club on their own patch still constitutes a decent season.
Against Hebburn, two Paul Gardiner goals won it for the visitors, who had Tony Stephenson sent off.
When Liam McBryde missed a couple of ‘sitters’ for the South Tynesiders, Shields were still in it, but they never really threatened to score in the full 90 minutes other than a Keith Douglas free kick that almost crept in.
It was club skipper Douglas who put his side ahead at Whitehaven with another award, a deliciously curling effort that gave home custodian Stuart Pettit no chance.
Douglas, restored up front alongside Andy Hay, was leading the line well but was stretching as he nodded a Hay cross over the top.
Another Douglas header was saved by Pettit, Scott Blandford saw his goalbound effort hit team-mate Paul Dunn to go wide, then new acquisition Adam Forster was unlucky with a drive that whistled inches past the post.
Mark Sheeran then glanced a Douglas free kick just off target and lobbed over, but before the break the hosts all but levelled with Blandford forced to clear off his own goal line.
With only a slender lead Shields were looking a little vulnerable as the second half unwound and only a superb point blank save from Michael Robinson kept his side on level terms.
Hay was agonisingly close after he latched onto a Douglas through ball but that elusive and decisive second goal just would not come.
On 81 minutes the Robins paid the price when a speculative shot from Stuart Shaw sailed over Robinson and into the top corner for the equaliser.
Four minutes on the Shields keeper should have kept out Leigh Dunn’s effort but the ball squirmed from his grasp to trickle over the line.
The Shieldsmen had displayed plenty effort and did not deserve this ill fortune, but despite a couple of half chances in the closing seconds they could not get back on terms.
North Shields: Robinson, Hughes, Grey, Dunn, Bowlt, Forster (Wright 60 mins), Watson, Blandford, Hay, Douglas (Holmes 78 mins), Sheeran (Rowntree 60). Subs not used: Akinbolu, Rasmussen. Man of the match: Keith Douglas.
On Saturday Shields head west once more, this time to take on promotion contenders Gillford Park.
Kick-off at the Railway Club ground, Petteril Band Road in Carlisle, is 3pm.
North Shields visit Bedlington Terriers in the quarter-final of the Brooks Mileson Northern League Cup on Wednesday, April 4 (7.30pm).
The two sides last met in a Northumberland Senior Cup tie at Ralph Gardner Park in 2009 which the Terriers edged 3-2 after extra time when John Amos and Mark Minto netted for the Robins.
Shields’ only two previous visits to Bedlington were in 1985-86 when they drew 2-2 (Keith Mills 2) and in 1986-87 when they lost 2-1 (Micky Taylor), both Northern League clashes.
On Good Friday (April 6) the Robins make the short journey to West Allotment Celtic for a noon kick-off.
North Shields hold their annual dinner at the Village Hotel on Thursday, April 19, when former Sunderland skipper Kevin Ball and England cricketer Steve Harmison (brother of Shields centre half James) are the speakers.
Tickets cost £25 and are available from club officials.